Or how about a teacup poodle so tiny it will fit into a purse — the canine equivalent of a bonsai?
The Japanese sure do.
Rare dogs are highly prized here, and can set buyers back more than $10,000. But the real problem is what often arrives in the same litter: genetically defective sister and brother puppies born with missing paws or faces lacking eyes and a nose.
There have been dogs with brain disorders so severe that they spent all day running in circles, and others with bones so frail they dissolved in their bodies. Many carry hidden diseases that crop up years later, veterinarians and breeders say.
Kiyomi Miyauchi was heartbroken to discover this after one of two Boston terriers she bought years ago suddenly collapsed last year into spasms on the living room floor and died. In March, one of its puppies died the same way; another went blind.
Ms. Miyauchi stumbled across a widespread problem here that is only starting to get attention. Rampant inbreeding has given Japanese dogs some of the highest rates of genetic defects in the world, sometimes four times higher than in the United States and Europe.
These illnesses are the tragic consequences of the national penchant in Japan for turning things cute and cuddly into social status symbols. But they also reflect the fondness for piling onto fads in Japan, a nation that always seems caught in the grip of some trend or other.
“Japanese are maniacs for booms,” said Toshiaki Kageyama, a professor of veterinary medicine specializing in genetic defects at Azabu University in Sagamihara. “But people forget here that dogs aren’t just status symbols. They are living things.”
Dogs are just one current rage. Less consequential is the big boom in the color pink: pink digital cameras, pink portable game consoles and, yes, pink laptop computers have become must-haves for young women. Last year, it was “bug king,” a computer game with battling beetles.
A number of the booms in Japan, including Tamagotchi — basically a virtual pet that grew on a computer screen — and the fanciful cartoon characters of Pokémon, have made their way across the Pacific and swept up American children, too.
The affection for fads in Japan reflects its group-oriented culture, a product of the conformity taught in its grueling education system. But booms also take off because they are fueled by big business. Companies like Sony and Nintendo are constantly looking to create the next adorable hit, churning out cute new characters and devices. Booms help sustain an entire industrial complex, from software makers to marketers and distributors, that thrives off the pack mentality of consumers in Japan.
The same thing is happening in Japan’s fast-growing pet industry, estimated at more than $10 billion a year. Chihuahuas are the current hot breed, after one starred in the television ads of a finance company. In the early 1990s, a TV drama featuring a Siberian husky helped send annual sales rocketing from just a few hundred dogs to 60,000; sales fell when the fad cooled, according to the Japan Kennel Club. The breed took off despite being inappropriately large for cramped homes in Japan.
The United States also experiences surges in sales of certain breeds, and some states have confronted “puppy mills” that churn out popular breeds by enacting “puppy lemon laws” that prevent breeders from selling diseased animals.
But in Japan, the sales spikes are far more extreme, statistics show. The kennel club says unethical breeders try to cash in on the booms, churning out large volumes of puppies from a small number of parents. While many breeders have stuck to healthy mating practices, the lure of profits has attracted less scrupulous breeders and led to proliferation of puppy mills.
Some veterinarians and other experts cite another, less obvious factor behind widespread risky inbreeding in Japan’s dog industry — the nation’s declining birthrate.
As the number of childless women and couples in Japan has increased, so has the number of dogs, which are being coddled and doted upon in place of children, experts say. In the last decade, the number of pet dogs in Japan has doubled to 13 million last year — outnumbering children under 12 — according to Takashi Harada, president of Yaseisha, a publisher of pet industry magazines.
“Households with few or no children are turning to dogs to fill the void,” he said. “For a dog to be part of the family, it has to be unique and have character, like a person.”
Indeed, many of these buyers want dogs they can show off like proud parents. They are willing to pay top yen, with rarer dogs fetching higher prices. Coveted traits like a blue-tinged coat are often the result of recessive genes, which can determine appearance only when combined with another recessive gene.
Inbreeding is a quick way to bring out recessive traits, as dogs carrying the gene are repeatedly mated with their own offspring, enhancing the trait over successive generations.
When done carefully, some types of inbreeding are safe. But in Japan, all too many breeders throw aside caution in search of a quick profit, experts in the business say. In these cases, for every dog born with prized colors, many more appear with defects, also the product of recessive genes.
“The demand is intense, and so is the temptation,” said Hidekazu Kawanabe, one of the country’s top Chihuahua breeders. “There are a lot of bad breeders out there who see dogs as nothing more than an industrial product to make quick money.”
Awareness is so recent that the only comprehensive survey of genetic defects came out two years ago, looking at malformed hips in Labrador retrievers. The results showed that nearly half of all Labradors suffered from the deformity — four times more than the United States, according to Professor Kageyama at Azabu University, who conducted the survey.
Hirofumi Sasaki, a pet store owner in the western city of Hiroshima, has seen so many defective dogs that last year he converted an old bar into a hospice to care for them. So far he has taken in 32 dogs, though only 12 have survived.
One is Keika, a deaf 1-year-old female dachshund with eyes that wander aimlessly. Her breeder was originally selling her for about $7,500 because she is half-white, a rare trait in dachshunds.
“That is an unnatural color, like a person with blue skin,” Mr. Sasaki said.
The breeder told Mr. Sasaki that he had bred a dog with three generations of offspring — in human terms, first with its daughter, then a granddaughter and then a great-granddaughter — until Keika was born. The other four puppies in the litter were so hideously deformed that they were killed right after birth.
Ms. Miyauchi, the Boston terrier owner and a resident of the western city of Kobe, said she was appalled to learn how common inbreeding was in Japan. After the death of her second Boston terrier, she said she went looking for the breeder, but the phone number she got from the pet shop was invalid.
“No one’s really monitoring the industry,” she said.
The government concedes that oversight is poor, and passed a law in June to revoke the licenses of breeders who use dogs with genetic defects for breeding. But the Environment Ministry, which has jurisdiction over pets, says it has just four officials to monitor all of 25,000 pet shops, kennels and breeders in Japan.
The Japan Kennel Club began adding results of DNA screening onto pedigree certificates in April. But that falls short of the American Kennel Club, which discourages risky inbreeding by listing acceptable colors for each breed.
“Japan is about 30 or 40 years behind in dealing with genetic defects,” said Takemi Nagamura, president of the Japan Kennel Club.
Ultimately, animal care professionals say, the solution is educating not just breeders but potential dog owners.
“If consumers didn’t buy these unnatural dogs,” said Chizuko Yamaguchi, a veterinarian at the Japan Animal Welfare Society, “breeders wouldn’t breed them.”